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Staying Fit: Rise of the UAE’s wonder women

Meet two women who find strength and thrive in sports traditionally dominated by men

  • Left to Right, Michelle Kuehn, Boxer and Olivia Mac, Powerlifter at the Real Boxing Only gym, Al Quoz, DubaiImage Credit: Antonin Kélian Kallouche/Gulf News
  • Michelle Kuehn, a boxer at the Real Boxing Only gym, in Al Quoz, Dubai.Image Credit: Antonin Kélian Kallouche/Gulf News
  • Olivia McCubbin during the women Powerliftingcompetition at the Warehouse Gym, Al Quoz, Dubai.Image Credit: Antonin Kelian Kallouche/Gulf News
  • Olivia McCubbin during the women Powerliftingcompetition at the Warehouse Gym, Al Quoz, DubaiImage Credit: Antonin Kélian Kallouche/Gulf News
  • Olivia McCubbin during the women Powerliftingcompetition at the Warehouse Gym, Al Quoz, Dubai Image Credit: Antonin Kélian Kallouche/Gulf News
  • Olivia McCubbin during the women Powerliftingcompetition at the Warehouse Gym, Al Quoz, DubaiImage Credit: Antonin Kélian Kallouche/Gulf News
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There are truly remarkable women around us and they inspire everyone, regardless of gender and colour, on a daily basis. We have the utmost respect for our mothers and sisters but I’m not talking in domestic terms. I’m talking about your Ronda Rouseys, your Venus Williams, your Tia Toomeys and Danica Patrick. Women who find strength, thrive and succeed in sports traditionally dominated by men.

A handful of strong women have graced this column in the past and there’s no shortage of them, especially in this nation that fosters equality. We’ve seen Wonder Woman smash the box office with her charm and heroism, but we need look no further to experience this kind prowess. What she embodies in the movies can be found in your nearest gym.

Gulf News tabloid! talks to two extraordinary women who are making waves in disciplines that require strength and determination. Above all, they lead female empowerment and show everyone how stereotypical barriers are broken. Meet powerlifter Olivia McCubbin, who’s a strength coach and personal trainer, and boxer Michelle Kuehn, who works as a general manager for Real Boxing Only gym.

McCubbin recently muscled her way in a powerlifting competition in Dubai last month — Power Meet 4.0. The event showcased 38 athletes with 11 women competing in three main lifts — the squat, the bench press and the deadlift. Kuehn, on the other hand, has just exchanged blows with a fierce competitor in another one of her fights held at the Metropolitan Hotel Dubai last week.

Were you previously involved in other disciplines? What got you into your current sport?

McCubbin: I’ve always been involved with fitness from young age. I started off as a ballet dancer for eight years throughout my childhood, then loved attending group exercise classes like Les Mills BodyPump and RPM.

I was bullied a lot as a young girl throughout high school and even into my professional working life, and I found that exercise was a great outlet for me to de-stress, improve my self-confidence and feel empowered and in control again.

I loved training so much that I decided to get qualified as a group fitness instructor and personal trainer. Since getting qualified, I started to take my training a lot more seriously… I frequently had strangers approach me in the gym, asking me if ‘I compete’ and I didn’t even know what this was, but was curious to find out… so I worked with many of my own coaches and started competing in bodybuilding competitions in the bikini division to showcase all my hard efforts at the gym… After that, I decided to set myself a new challenge, in a new sport that would physically and mentally test my limits — powerlifting!

I had listened to one of my husband’s podcasts where he interviewed an elite female powerlifter, and felt inspired by her fitness journey and her incredible strength… The reason why I really love powerlifting is because unlike bikini competitions, it’s totally objective and measurable and you’re surrounded by like-minded people, in a fitness community that is not so catty or competitive, but much friendlier, supportive and like a true family.

Kuehn: No, I wasn’t. I am a partner in a media company, The Media Network, and I was pretty much at events every evening and office all day. The only sport was running in heels, which to be honest is a skill and one that is very underrated. I started boxing as it was something I had wanted to do for years but I had never made that first step. I was reaching the point in my life stress-wise, that I knew I needed to do something or I was in trouble. I put on my first pair of gloves two and a half years ago and couldn’t even run four minutes. By my third session, I ran 15 minutes (almost died) but I realised that all of this time I had been selling myself short, that I was capable of much more than I had been doing and I have not looked back since.

As a woman, what does it mean for you to compete in a sport traditionally dominated by men, and especially in this region?

McCubbin: A strong woman is someone who sets herself challenging goals and makes a plan to achieve them. She’s not necessarily the best lifter or has the biggest muscles but she always strives for self-improvement. A strong woman never says ‘I can’t’ but she says ‘I can and I will. Watch me!’ She stands up for what she believes in, she goes against the grain and proves the doubters wrong.

Participating in events like Power Meet 4.0 really showcases how far women have come in the Gulf — how we’re challenging stereotypes that women shouldn’t lift heavy weights in the gym. It teaches young girls to follow their dreams and pursue their passions. And it shows the world that we can lift just as well (and sometimes better) than the big boys.

Kuehn: A few weekends [ago] was the first time a female fight was ever televised on HBO. To me that is a problem… my fight [on May 10] hasn’t even been promoted but male fights have been and no matter how good a female boxer is she is still getting paid pennies compared to male fighters. On the other hand, what I like about competing in a male dominated sport here in the Middle East is the female factor. We are a tight group (as there are only a few of us) and we support each other. My former opponents come and spar with me on my ‘female fight club’ sparring night. I have a cool girl gang and a huge amount of female support behind me as they know this is not an easy task, smashing stereotypes. The other side, which I don’t want to leave out, is that I am surrounded by quality male boxers at my gym who are behind me 100 per cent as well and don’t treat me any differently as they know strength has no gender for it is in the mind. To me this is just me being me, always pushing the limit and it is my destiny to break the barriers put in place by society’s expectations.

How would you convince other women to lift/box?

McCubbin: One of the biggest myths about weight training is that women will automatically become ‘huge and muscular’ and look too masculine if they lift weights that are ‘too heavy’. There is no such thing. The only time that a weight is too heavy is when your technique starts to fail. I’ve been lifting weights for over 10 years and I don’t think I look like Arnold Schwarzenegger. The only reason why women might think that lifting weights causes them to build too much muscle and look bigger is if they are eating too many calories for their body type which causes an increase of body fat over the muscle tissue, creating bulk instead of a lean shape and toned body.

I would definitely encourage all women to start lifting weights on a consistent basis. Start with at least two to three times per week and set yourself a challenge to gradually increase your weights over time. Strength training will help you create a sustainable, lean, strong and shapely body in ways that cardio alone just can’t do. It’s a much more efficient way to get results and build a faster metabolism, so you can still enjoy your favourite foods and not always restrict yourself on a low calorie diet. You know what they say, #strongisthenewskinny!

Kuehn: The thing is, fighting is not for everyone but boxing is. Those who know me and those who have met me will see that boxing lit a fire within me that was always there but was undiscovered. Part of the reason I love having a boxing gym is that I can get women in and get them boxing – especially in this day and age when stress in the workplace is at an all-time high. Females putting on gloves is so rewarding to me as I was a mere shadow of myself before I took up boxing. I was over-worked, under-paid, under-valued and mentally ‘dead’. I had allowed people for years to walk all over me, settling for second place and doing more for others than for was done for me. Then I picked up gloves and I not only felt confident in myself, I became more coordinated, extremely calm and composed, as well as connected with my mind, body and spirit. Some need yoga, others need boxing.

What advice would you give women who see you as an inspiration, and maybe want to follow in your footsteps?

McCubbin: As daunting as stepping inside a gym for the first time may be, or venturing over to where the barbells and dumbbells are, once you start, you’ll learn to love the process. There’s something really satisfying and rewarding about getting stronger, lifting heavier weights and feeling the benefits that regular exercise and resistance training does for your mind set, confidence and body.

I loved training so much that I gave up my corporate career to be in fitness full time. The world of fitness can open so many doors up for you, you just need to start and make it a daily habit in your routine. Making the decision to get started is the hardest step, but once you do, you’ll never look back. I truly believe that strength training is not only great for your body, but helps you with other aspects of like, like being more focused and determined in your professional life and everyday life too.

Kuehn: I hope I inspire women and girls, nothing is more important to me than helping women. My advice is don’t be afraid to be a better version of yourself or to stand out. The best quote I ever heard and one that inspires me daily is, ‘Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.’ Do like I did, make that first phone call (ideally to me and my gym), go for your first class, just try it. Nothing is wrong with trying something new, I know you won’t regret it. It really is that simple, do it without delay or excuses. And don’t cancel!

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